Forget quantified self wristbands. OMsignal raises $1M to make bio-sensing smart apparel

By Michael Carney , written on June 5, 2013

From The News Desk

With the wearable computing and quantified self movements more popular than ever, it’s looking more and more likely that we are approaching the day where we will constantly be collecting data about our every action and the environment around us. Wristbands, headbands, belt clips, and eyewear have been the initial form factors for the sensors that collect this data, but these can be intrusive and soon the market will demand more coverage than can be offered by devices of such physically limited footprint.

With this in mind, many innovators are already working on what they believe the next generation of wearable computing: bio-sensing clothing. One such company, OMsignal, announced $1 million in Seed funding today from Real Ventures, Golden Venture Partners, and TechStars CEO David Cohen. The company is working on a full apparel line that continuously monitors physical activity, ECG data, and breathing patterns, transmitting that data to an accompanying smartphone app. In addition to raw bio data, the user will receive interpretations of tension levels, or “emotive” states, and subsequent prescriptions for how to improve.

The idea is that these products will ultimately be worn throughout the day, CEO Stéphane Marceau says, not just during athletic activity or other specific events. In its introductory video, the company demonstrates a wife notified of her husband’s rising stress levels who then sends a reassuring text, a daughter who’s able to get her father to a hospital after being alerted to his dramatically elevated heart rate, and parents lovingly monitoring the heartbeat of both mother and child throughout the day.

OMsignal apparel is not available for purchase yet. Prototypes of its shirt have been completed, and the company has developed proprietary manufacturing techniques to enable fully automated mass production – which is no small feat. But before the product is rolled out to the consumer market, it will be given to third-party developers who demonstrate an interest in building applications for the platform. The concept is heavily inspired by the preliminary rollout of Google Glass, minus the celebrity aspect. The first 100 units will be available in Q4 of this year.

The company is already working with several interested parties in the medical field, Marceau says, as well as other hobbyists, such as a developer who plans to build a lamp that changes intensity according to the user’s heart rate. The possibilities are endless, and will surely be tested by the participating developers.

We are entering a brave new world of ubiquitous data collection, but while the potential benefits are great, the risks are equally frightening. I’ve written previously about the possibility that user data could be used to deny medical coverage and credit, to target advertising, or to discriminate in other unpleasant ways. As the amount of data that we collect and share increases, these possibilities only grow more probable and frightening.

Just yesterday, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt declared the need to build a platform to aggregate and make sense of all this user data. Fortunately Schmidt’s vision called for anonymized data, but as we’ve seen before, even the best intentions around privacy and security can have unintended (and unpleasant) consequences.

OMsignal is far from the only company working in the bio-sensing clothing category. I’ve personally spoken to two others who are currently in stealth mode but which have similarly spent more than a year developing products which will soon hit the market. Marceau and the founders of these other companies each compared their technology to GORE-TEX in that they’d like to see it licensed to major performance apparel brands for integration into their products. With that said, it's likely that we'll see smart clothing on retail shelves in the next 12 months.

When smart apparel does finally hit the market it will be priced like other wearable computing products – think on the order of $100 per unit, plus or minus a few dollars.  But because bio-sensing fabrics are lightweight, unobtrusive, and machine washable, they are far more flexible than traditional electronics in their applications, making them an attractive alternative at similar pricepoints. As the technology grows more ubiquitous and the market expands, it’s likely that prices will fall significantly, making way for mass-market adoption.

The big problem with quantified self products today is that nearly all lack the prescriptive aspect, or in other words, they deliver great data but don't tell you what to do about it. For example, its nice to know that you're not sleeping well and that you don't get enough exercise. But, without first understanding the consequences of these two shortcomings and then receiving practical advice for improving them, the data is of little value. OMsignal is aware of this fact and is working to deliver new and innovative solutions. But Marceau admits that, like others in the space, his company hasn't yet nailed it.

It’s possible that one day soon heart attacks, low blood sugar, rising insulin levels, and even pregnancy will be detected first by our apparel rather than by a blood test or another deliberate medical procedure. This is in addition to the more superficial benefits of athletic performance tracking enabled by innovation in this category. And while there are ethical minefields that remain to be crossed, the real benefits of such information are too exciting not to explore.

We are barely scratching the surface of wearable computing. Today, it is our bodily systems (nervous, respiratory, endocrine, etc.) that constantly monitor and measure every aspect of our physical performance. Soon, we may all have that same level of awareness sitting in the palm of our hands. And with it, hopefully we can create a healthier, fitter, happier, and more productive society.